Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marx and the Bible

Annotation/research paper for my Bible/Apocrypha class. god is a closet Marxist!

What was supposed to be a dramatically shorter annotation that grew into something .. kind of silly. Was an interesting read, though. I forgot to email myself back the final two paragraphs when I finished it on campus, and will add those later.

Marx and the Bible, written by Jose Porfirio Miranda and translated by John Eagleson, attempts to make the argument that Exodus and the prophets are revelations of the "Transcendent God," whom is also known as the "Liberator of the Oppressed." To be more specific, Miranda argues, both in the introduction and throughout the 300 page, highly academic and densely-written work that Yahweh exists exclusively to deliver [his] people from oppression. As covered extensively in chapter 3, God's Intervention in History, Miranda argues highly effectively that the only instances that Yahweh appears and actually does anything is to free his people from oppression, and that His hand and the voice of the prophets appear only when Israel – or another group of people - is treating it's poor and downtrodden with injustice. Miranda's ultimate goal with this work is nothing short of a complete reworking of the economic and theological systems that have allowed for and even enabled the rise of capitalism. Although Miranda's arguments are often compelling, he does little to address alternate arguments (such as those in favor of a capitalistic system), instead keeping his argumentative focus specifically on the interpretation of the words found in the Bible, and those of various Papist documents. He also heavily employs a variety of dialectic methods, occasionally citing but more often than not assuming that the reader has read the works that he references. Although possibly acceptable to the theologian and scholar in general, it made for frustrated reading as I personally have not read anything that he cited. Marx and the Bible, published in 1974 under the Library of Congress denotation of BS 511.2.M5713, is thrown into an argument that, as I have learned in reading it, has been ongoing for sometime; is God a communist?

That actually isn't the argument that's going on, although interpretations of Yahweh as a Marxist – and Marx as a Yahwist – are found throughout the work. In the first chapter, Private Ownership Under Challenge, Miranda asserts that private ownership is a terrible crime, both to a non-religious society but particularly to any Judaeo-Christian group. This is primarily due to the inherent unfairness of labor/wage contracts; the only way that a worker would sell the only thing he can – his labor – for the low rates that the employer (or: the controller of the means of production) will pay is if he is either under duress ("No one could convince us that we are free to pay or not to pay what is charged for a loaf of bread. This is determined by entrepreneurs as a group. You pay it or you die of hunger. (p. 10)) or has no alternate choice in the system. Although several popes have argued that as long as the original capital was justly (we'll return to this shortly) acquired, then the wage/labor contract is inherently fair; however, Miranda asserts clearly that there is no way that one group of people, regardless of historicity, could have acquired so much of the capital of one (or more) groups of people without violence or spoliation. About this system, he says that
"There has never existed a socio-cultural system whose refined constrictive power was so capable of entrapping and hooking people on such deep and psychic levels as the capitalist system. Not only does it make them believe they are free, but it makes them consider inserting themselves into the system and assisting it to function as a life ideal. For the slaves of old there was at least the interior freedom of knowing they were slaves; at least in that little corner of their soul they were free. ... If by chance they should escape, they have no choice by to return; it is the only way they can survive. (pg. 22-23)
Although not speaking directly or necessarily about capitalism, Miranda also says just after that "Only intellectual blindness could lead one to assert that the working-class masses accept the wage system with true freedom, the wage system on which the Western socio-economic system as a whole is based." The author's feelings on capitalism and any wage-based system become pretty apparent, although he supports each argument with eloquence and heavy citation.

His other central point to the first chapter is the attempt to redefine what it means to be just; "Since at least the sixth century A.D., a bald fact has been systematically excluded from theological and moral consideration: "To give alms" in the Bible is called "to do justice." To give alms essentially reverts to giving materially to another person as an act of goodwill or religious virtue. Miranda takes great effort to explain that not only is this mandated by not merely the Bible but God himself, as the manifestation of God occurs only to free people from oppression – and the closest that a mortal can approach to God is through charity, fairness, and being just to the poor. The difficulty with this is that in order to be truly just, no man can be rich; Miranda states this multiple times throughout the book, and the following passage illustrates this in a most interesting way:
"Many have sinned for the sake of profit; he who hopes to be rich must be ruthless. A peg will
stick in the joint between two stones, and sin will wedge itself between selling and buying."
(Ecclus. 27:1-2)
Miranda also makes absolutely no distinction between "good" and "evil" rich men; to him, the trouble with individual ownership instead of communal has nothing to do with the individual, but the act itself. He says that, "Unless one person has lost, another cannot find," suggesting that in order for one man to profit in any tangible way, the other man whom he bargained with must have lost something in the deal - as otherwise, things like surpluses and profits cannot exist, and only through those two things can trade between groups arise. Because only through the exploitation of the working man can profits arise, Miranda also says on page 19 that
"...therefore alms giving is nothing more than a restitution of what has been stolen, and the Bible calls it justice."
I am inclined to agree with him.

Chapter 2, or The God of the Bible, tends to be a chapter with less focus on modern arguments and socialism as an in-depth look at the God of both the New and Old Testament. Instead of the careful and well-measured prose intermingled with papal edicts and modern literary analysis, the second chapter revolves around actual Biblical passages concerning the immaterial nature of Yahweh, and what it means to know Yahweh. On this, Miranda provides the reader with a series of passages from the Old Testament; "He defended the cause of the poor and the needy; is this not what it means to know me? It is Yahweh who speaks" (Jor. 22:16) and later, "I will not accept your offerings and sacred ceremonies; what I demand is that you do justice to the poor and needy." (Hos. 6:6)
He concludes that "The meaning of "to know Yahweh" is thus all the more clear, almost like a technical term: to have compassion for the needy and to do justice to them." (pg. 48)

Following comes God's Intervention in History, in which Miranda begins his linguistic analysis of much of the Bible with a focus on the Old Testament. This section of the book is particularly where a knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew would have been particularly useful, as Miranda references it liberally and, it would seem, with the assumption that the reader is familiar with both. Due to this, it's difficult to develop an opposing viewpoint; although what he writes makes a great deal of sense, having absolutely no point of reference makes it troubling to read as it requires a blind acceptance of his arguments – which should never be the case. He goes over one word with high emphasis; mišpat, which appears multiple times throughout his citations, and would seem to mean justice. But not justice in the traditional sense; justice, to modern western man, has little to do with what Miranda argues is the justness of God and righteousness, as modern man is likely swayed by the notion that to follow the law is to be just. Justice, in the original and Biblical sense, is rather to give alms to the poor and ensure that they are not poor. Miranda in chapter 4 will return to the notions of laws and justice.

The third chapter is also the section where Miranda begins to elaborate on exactly when and why God intervenes in the affairs of humans. According to and well-supported by Miranda is the thesis that God/Yahweh appears and manifests his power only in one situation: when his people are oppressing their own poor, or when other groups are oppressing his people. On page 78 he says,
"Yahweh's intervention in our history has only one purpose. Here (in Isaiah 42:5-7) it is explicit: "to serve the cause of justice"." and on the page preceding, "...Yahweh is the God who breaks into human history to liberate the oppressed."
It's an interesting theory, and try as I might I was hard pressed to refute it, aside from perhaps the story of Jonah – although to be fair, it was never explained exactly what the citizens of Nineveh. His careful analysis is also made clear with passages such as,
"Ezekiel uses phrases such as the following 78 times: "You shall know I am Yahweh when I do such a thing ..." For example, "They shall know I am Yahweh when I break their yokestraps and release them from the hand of their captors." (Ezek. 34:27)" (pg. 81)

"The only meaning of the law is to do justice, in the strictest, most social sense of the word." (pg. 146) In chapter four, or Law and Civilization, Miranda examines western law in the context of both modern times and the time immediately proceeding the death of Christ. He does this through a variety of methods, primarily relying on side-by-side examinations of Biblical passages. These very frequently come not so much from the Old Testament but from the various writings of the Apostle Paul, although the destruction versus the damnation of Soddom and Gomorrha are also looked at. Miranda sets out to make the argument that only through Christ and, in a paralell sense, Yahweh/God can true justice be found – as the slaying of the Christ could not have been just, yet it was by the laws of Israel that he was killed.
"You have broken with Christ if you look for justice in the law; you have fallen from grace." (Gal 5:4)
Miranda further explains and rationalizes the crucifixion of Christ in this way:
"Let me repeat: For us to be free from the law it was necessary that the law crucify Christ before our eyes; only in this way could we understand that justice does not come through the law. Therefore Paul says that he has nothing else to preach but Christ crucified (as in 1st Cor. 1:23)." (pg. 189)

As civilization is built directly on top of and is dependent upon laws – which, Miranda has established, are unjust – then civilization in general is equally as unjust. The only laws that should be followed and can offer any sort of justness are those directly handed down by Yahweh, as they were designed to protect the poor and the oppressed – the very thing that Israel was when Yahweh decided to initially intervene in their history. As to the laws, however,
"It's clear that for the prophets the law is important only because its content of justice. Thus, when they proclaim that Yahweh rejects Israel, the law as law does not serve them as a point of support subsistent on itself. The law as such has no substance for them." (pg. 167)
His evidence throughout the chapter is once again primarily examinations of Biblical passages, both through the Old Testament and the New, in addition to some linguistic analysis. Miranda also freely interjects ideas and sometimes opposing thoughts from other writers, but, as with previous chapters, he assumes that the reader is already familiar with them and thus, doesn't bother to quote them – rendering many of the passages incomprehensible.

Chapter 5, or Faith and Dialectics, attempts to pull all of the criteria concerning justice and the law that Miranda established in the four preceding chapters into the concepts laid out by Marx. It is here that Miranda's goal becomes apparent and is realized; by linking what he considers to be the absolute purpose of both Christ and Yahweh – to free Israel/the Gentiles from oppression – with his established idea that the modern economy and the wage contract system is inherently unfair, he creates an interesting paralell to Marxist concepts. It very often seems as though Miranda, and even Paul, are anarchists, as very often their complaints are not merely with the law but also with the state, which is founded atop civilization and the law. Neither provides much of an alternative aside from Christ, alms-giving and good works, unfortunately, each assuming that to know Christ is to be just. On page 204, Miranda writes:
"Paul is convinced not only that the law has failed in human history in its attempt to achieve justice, but also that justice will not be achieved in this world as long as the law exists."
"If justice comes by means of the law, then Christ died in vain." (Gal. 2:21)
Paul and Marx also come together in this chapter:
"Paul and Marx coincide in their intuition of the totality of evil: Sin and injustice form an all-comprehensive and all-pervasive organic structure. Paul called this totality "kosmos". Marx calls it capitalism. But if Marx does not recognize that capitalism is the consummation and deepening of the oppression which was inherent to human civilization since biblical times, then it is denying dialectics and attributing the birth of capitalism to exterior causes, exactly as metaphysics and mechanistic materialism would do it. Mao Tse Tung asks, "Why is it that the Chinese revolution can avoid a capitalist future and be directly linked with socialism without taking the old historical road of the Western countries, without passing through a period of bourgeois dictatorship?" And he can ask this precisely because the structuralization of injustice into total civilization already existed before capitalism." (pg. 250)
Although Miranda is particularly effective at dismantling well thought of concepts and entranched ideals, he lacks a real voice in suggesting alternatives to the status quo; although he might convince people that socialism really is the true path of Christ and a necessary way to enable a society to be just, he does little to address specifics of how this can be achieved. This may be, however, due to Miranda's propensity to employ the work of other people without directly quoting it – it's entirely possible that he's more than willing to lean back after the revolution and be pleased with whatever just .. happens. It makes for an ultimately unsatisfying work, and fails in the context of the larger debate; sure, there should be change. He effectively describes why, and even to an extent, how this might be accomplished. But he doesn't say what should happen after that - "Everything will be just" - is simply naïve.

Throughout Marx and the Bible, Miranda revisits a variety of themes, although his favorite – or perhaps the one he considers to be the most important aside – is the foundation of Greek philosophy. He accuses it of forcing a materialism, a fetishization of physical objects and of the displacement of man as a living, breathing being from the equation. He also argues that its foundations and those with which modern civilization/laws were built upon is inherently dependant upon maintaining the status quo – and, as he has demonstrated in a variety of ways throughout, the status quo is generally a poor state of living. In chapter 1, he writes:
"For the Bible is nothing like the "neutral arbitration" which the Greco-Roman tradition imposed on us, a so-called neutral arbitration whose unimpeded task is to preserve the status quo by overcoming with force whoever challenges it. For the Bible, law consists in finally achieving justice for the poor and oppressed of the world. Completely opposite to the defense of the status quo, the realization of justice not only subverts it, but it also demands that we abolish the state and the law. ... Anyone who believes that a total change of attitude is possible without a total change of the mental system does not know what a mental system is."
(pg. 22)
This is a theme that Miranda revisits often, and to great effect; he quotes Aristotle as saying, "Truth is incompatible with the condition of the slave."
This work is important because it addresses as aspect of the God of Abraham that is seldom addressed - what it means to know him, and to do his works. More than the contextual definitions that he has provided throughout, Marx and the Bible shows that almost the entirety of modern Christianity is not merely off-track, but outright wrong. Although opponents of organized religion are not rare and are never anything but outspoken, very seldomly do they approach the question of justness, fairness, and overall correctness of both the institution and civilization as a whole with the troubling accuracy and candor that Miranda presents his case with. Although the debate between socialism and capitalism has all but died off in all but academic circles in the United States, this work should still be read - if only so that the notion that God is a closet Marxist can become more widespread.
What is at stake in this argument is the prosperity of all people, and not merely the class of people capable of the production of material goods. Particularly considering that it is that same class of people that ensure that Christianity is the dominant, prevailing mindset in the United States in particular - that they are using a philosophy that is directly antithetical to their methodology of governance and economics is something that the people exploited by their system should and deserve to know. The people that are abused and manipulated not merely by the laws, the state, and the prevailing economic theories should know that they are being manipulated also through their faith. This work, or at least the ideas presented within it, should also be reviewed by those disenfranchised with oganized religion, as I found that Marx and the Bible provided me with more reason to accept not only Christ but Yahweh as divine and just than any other argument I've ever encountered. It's a shame that they're incompatible with thought processes too firmly entrenched; Marx and the Bible is an interesting took for conversion.


Steven Donkel said...

Yay - "entailed taking land, say, enclosing it, and expelling a resident population to create a landless proletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatized mainstream of capital accumulation

TQ said...

Linked on Twitter 2/19 15:45 @tqnews